Launch speech, 11 April, 2019: Hobart Bookshop
Continental Shift, a memoir of landscape and voices, by Megan Schaffner
We, in Hobart, are very lucky to have Megan among us. She has been a towering figure in the literary community: conducting poetry readings with Adult Ed for 20 years; editing several books of poetry, short stories and essays for the Fellowship of Australian Writers in Tasmania; leading and encouraging groups to hear poetry read aloud, listened to, shared.
I’d like to read you the poem that begins her memoir.
To my Mother
Tonight, in the grey suburb of age,
the fires of memory smoulder to reveal
a long line of domestic dreamers,
feisty women, readers whose books
sustained them through childbirth, illness,
hardship, who cooked and cared for families,
told stories of ‘long ago when I was young’,
inspired children to dance with words.
Mother, from the pages of your optimism,
I read resilience and tough endurance,
I knew you as a vibrant parent
whose wild imaginings sprang from books.
As my world slips into winter
I pass the flame to my descendents
to light horizons
far beyond the hills.
Megan passes that flame to all who read this gem of a memoir. She has achieved much in her nearly 89 years: as teacher, actor and producer; as
poet and editor; as intrepid traveller and armchair philosopher; and, not least, as wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. All are aspects
of a life richly lived. And they’re all in this book.
I’ve been fortunate to spend many hours in the company of my dear friend, Megan. It’s the sort of friendship where we pick up, almost mid-sentence, the topic we’d been discussing a week before. After each visit I feel uplifted. She’s so enthusiastic about books she enjoys and about what she believes in. There’s a serenity too. As she says in her book, ‘We must try to be hopeful and at peace with ourselves.’
Her passion for literature is palpable. She’s also passionate about astronomy, teaching and learning, history, religion, physical and biological sciences, art and music …. And they’re all discussed here! That’s why I love this book.
I also love the inclusion of poems. Sprinkled among the prose, they intensify particular moments, expand the narrative, allow the reader time to reflect. Which reminds me: if you haven’t read Megan’s poetry collection A Poem is a Parachute (2015), look out for a copy – it’s wonderful.
What else do I admire? The elegant structure. In her Acknowledgements, Megan gives credit to her editor, Avril Caney, who has done a mighty job in collating what Megan calls a random collection of memories. She says, ‘Avril found a way to sort them out … and we’re still friends’. After the prologue, in which Megan describes her final days in South Africa, the first two sections go back to her childhood and growing up. After she and her family reach Hobart, time and place become more fluid. She shifts with ease between her birthplace and her adopted land, and takes us with her, as if in a conversation when an idea suddenly springs to mind. Yet there’s progression, too, of wisdom that grows with self-knowledge.
I should mention that there’s a substantial section on the three-month trip she took to Europe with her friend Joan. Entitled ‘Journeys on the wild side’, it’s both informative and entertaining. If you’re planning a trip to Europe, forget about buying Lonely Planet or AA Guides – buy this book instead; it’s much more interesting!
Several times in the memoir Megan contemplates the idea of home. She wonders if her childhood, which saw so many family moves, led her to see home more as a series of landscapes. ‘So where is home for migrants,’ she questions. Later she asks, ‘Is there really a chasm between the two parts of my life? Do I return there – not just to visit relations and the country itself – but to try to bring the parts of myself together?’ Later still she writes: ‘I am convinced that home for me is the planet itself rather than a building and I feel great awe and transcendence as I stand outside at night and scan the night sky.’
Under the sub-heading ‘The Night Sky’, Megan writes: ‘Almost eighty years ago, on a winter’s night I stood on the frosty Karoo with my father, looking up at the stars – a river of stars. ‘That’s the Milky Way, he said. ‘Listen,’ I said as I shivered in the cold, ‘I can hear the stars.’
During high school, Megan’s fascination with astronomy grew, but on a visit to Pretoria Observatory she was told that astronomy was not a career for a woman. She writes: ‘I let it go and turned instead to my other great interest: words, especially poetry.’ These two great loves – astronomy and poetry – were to come together for her after she matriculated.
She writes, ‘… I had my first full-length role as Jessica in The Merchant of Venice. Ah! Act V – and those wonderful lines Lorenzo speaks ... “Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven/ Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold;/ There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st/ But in his motion like an angel sings/ Still quiring to the young cherubins;/ Such harmony is in immortal souls …” ‘And yes,’ Megan writes, ‘I thought, as Lorenzo spoke these lines – I’ve heard them sing: a wonderful coming together of stars, words and music.’
There’s so much here to interest the reader: the importance she places on family and friends; her passion for the sea and swimming; her discovery of the vast beauty of outback Australia; her desire to identify the plants of her adopted country – she tells us she enrolled in the same Botany course in Hobart twice because she forgot to listen to what Prof Jackson said the first time around, so enthralled was she on looking down a microscope ‘by what the magnification yielded’.
In the craft of writing, Megan’s hand is sure, her touch light, her way of looking at the world unique. And there’s not a sniff of artifice. But there’s humour – a lot of it. Let me read you the final poem which is on the final page. It’s about her husband, Den:
From his collection of sticky tape he selects:
masking tape to anchor socks that won’t stay up
and cover holes in soles and heels –
broad plastic tape, beloved of packers
and removalists, to reinforce the seat
of threadbare gardening pants –
Don’t turn your back to anyone, I warn.
Our neighbour stops to chat while he’s out weeding,
I watch him do the twist, to keep in front of her,
while showing off his tree ferns. She smiles
and tactfully remarks: I like your hat.
You look like Monsieur Monet in his garden.
Paper tape holds knee-braces to knees,
mends worn-out underpants he’s rescued
from the bin where I’ve discarded them;
they end up in a gummy ball among the washing.
I throw them out and find he’s been there too,
taping the liner to the bin.
Let me sew those for you, I implore,
watching him staple trouser cuffs in place.
No need, he says, they’re not worth mending.
You stick to your poems.
Thank you, Megan, for being you. And for writing this beautiful memoir.